Tell us about your roles at Modulous and how you work together
ET: I’m Eva Talbot, the US Product Director. I handle the direction, design, strategic intent, and all aspects of management of our physical product.
MCS: I’m Matt Cross Smith. I’m Head of Product. I lead product management within the company. I’m the glue between our physical and digital products and I lead our strategy for the product lines we create.
Why is Modulous developing both physical and digital tools as opposed to choosing one lane?
ET: Because you can’t just choose one, you have to develop both. The physical Kit of Parts will not be successful without the digital tools – and vice versa.
MCS: The beauty of doing both at the same time is that we get to optimize the digital tools by understanding the physical implications. That’s really what sets us apart. It also gives us a massive jump on other companies that are looking at rules of thumb and generic solutions. Unlike them, we can look at a building plan and have accurate estimates down to the nuts and bolts. That helps us quantify cost, plan a schedule, and ultimately deliver physical parts in an end-to-end technology solution.
ET: There are many good modular builders who have been building for a long time, but they aren’t able to modernize or fully realize their opportunities—not only for delivery, but also for innovation—because they’re hamstrung by the digital products available in the current marketplace. There’s nothing that can really deliver repeated modular designs well. It just doesn’t exist. Ultimately, our physical product is in service of our digital tool. It’s like we’re building our own test case, and then we can just insert other Kits of Parts in the future.
What’s the significance of Modulous’ digital thread, and what are the implications for multifamily housing development?
ET: The digital thread addresses the barriers to get multi-family housing built. Traditional site assessment is a long process and it’s expensive, and it may or may not result in a built project. Our software will enable us to shorten that time frame significantly. And it’s not just the site assessment portion of that, but the complete analysis. We’ll be able to test what can happen on a site in minutes instead of months.
And then because the physical product is predefined to a certain extent, it allows the documentation for that portion of a project to be rapidly assembled, which then allows you move into the process of jurisdictional approval earlier. Obviously, we can’t control what happens at the jurisdiction level. But anything you can do to shorten the time frame for document preparation, design, and site understanding to get there is invaluable to get more housing to market rapidly. So that’s just the first phase of what our software will deliver. Later on, when we have the building, we can pull energy metrics out of it.
MCS: The phase I get most excited about is at the start. Using data to empower decision making, we want to allow teams to work in a far more informed and collaborative way and understand the impacts of their decisions on cost, energy performance, and financial performance. So, for example, you would traditionally do a site feasibility study and then you would go to an architect and do some plans almost in isolation of the financial metrics that the developer needs to meet to accept those plans. All of a sudden, you’re bringing everyone into the process at the same time, and you’re surfacing the financial appraisal data to the architect so they can be much more commercially minded.
What are the key research insights that are guiding the Modulous design process right now?
ET: I could go deep on this, but I’ll start with clients. We have existing client relationships, so we’re able to reach out to them for certain feedback metrics. We also have deep and current experience in the West Coast market here in the U.S., and globally we have almost infinite data sets at the national and even regional levels. We built a weighted heat map-style chart of about 25 different metrics that we investigated for the continental U.S. to start to pull out where our primary and secondary markets would be. We can learn a lot very quickly. Of course, it gets harder on the qualitative side. Here’s where we have to consider individual tastes that might be regional or cultural: things like where do you put a dresser or a TV. There are always these qualitative decisions that come up, but we can address those through good, simple, and repeatable design.
What kind of building data is available?
ET: There are code requirements. There are also future code requirements, which are almost as important as current code requirements, because these things tend to evolve. There’s energy performance, accessibility, and building code requirements. And each of those buckets have about ten codes that need to be assessed and taken into consideration. Then we look at census data, local housing market metrics, and the jobs landscape. Where are the jobs right now? Where are the jobs going? This helps us learn the places optimized to build modular.
MCS: From there if we take it back to the physical product, we can rely on the data to know how to understand the cost at each phase, from materials to assembly, which of course varies based on the size of the building. It’s important to understand that, in addition to the ultimate client, we have many different users, contractors, and stakeholders, so to speak. With each of them there is a rich opportunity for data collection.
How did you get started in this field?
MCS: I used to be an automotive engineer at a large auto firm in the product development department. Then, I moved into construction, and it was like going back in time. We were designing buildings and we would start from scratch every single time. Eventually, I moved to the U.S. and joined WeWork, which had a productized and standardized approach in terms of costs, procurement, and supply chain. The scalability of that business model was great because you could scale quickly into different regions and different markets. What eventually drew me to Modulous was its collection of people who understood the benefit of the asset-light business model and were also mission driven. They were focused on delivering high-quality affordable homes.
ET: I’m a licensed architect, and I spent almost a decade in Seattle building dense, complex, high-rise multifamily buildings. We were designing the same tower again and again, and I grew frustrated with the traditional delivery system. I joined Katerra for a time and even though Katerra didn’t end up working, I learned that it’s possible to make exceptional modular and prefabricated built environments through rigor and process. It’s been very exciting.
How do the needs of Modulous customers like developers, architects, and General Contractors differ between the UK and the U.S. markets?
ET: In the U.S., we don’t traditionally have a social housing aspect. What happens is a group will develop the property and then sell it upon completion to another group that operates the property. There is a clear divide between the developer that develops and the owner-operator. The U.S. is more General Contractor-led in the development process than the UK. We bring GCs on early in the U.S. to help assist in design decisions and site selection.
MCS: In the UK it’s the developer that holds the power. Interestingly, the return on investment for a developer from obtaining planning permission on a piece of land can be of greater importance and contain less risk than the ROI of realising the building. Our tool allows better pre-planning and appraisal decisions, leading to more accurate land valuation. This means our tool will be equally valuable to landowners looking to sell off land for development, and to developers looking to acquire land and take projects through to planning permission.
How would you like to see the building sector evolve in the coming years?
ET: If I could wish for anything in the U.S., I’d wish for of a national approach to modular construction. It’s up to each state to define their own requirements, needs, and restrictions. We could build much more high-quality housing much faster with a national policy around this.
MCS: It’s a similar story in the UK. We need a greater acceptance of repeatability and standardization across the market, and for the regulatory landscape to keep pace. A shift towards a more product-led approach to construction will also necessitate a different approach to the availability of data within the supply chain. I’d love to see more supply chain partners getting excited about the potential behind this.
How are digitization and data-driven design transforming construction?
ET: We’re working furiously on this at Modulous. We’ve created a highly repeatable product that effectively lets us condense all the early work into weeks rather than months or years. It’s a cliche, but time is money. The longer-term future is even more exciting. That’s when our focus expands from one general product into many modular solutions. This is also when machine learning and artificial intelligence enhance our understanding and strategy of complex things like zoning codes, GIS, and every other factor you’d consider to build a project.
MCS: There’s a huge chasm between how projects perform in design versus how they perform once constructed. With machine learning, we can quickly understand how concept measures up to reality. We can understand where a gap is, why that gap exists, and how to eliminate that gap. And you can extend that out to zoning, building codes, and building regulations, and begin to be more intelligent about how these policies are produced hopefully even to influence policy in a positive way.
ET: I want to add that the intersection of data and the user is very interesting. We of course must be sensitive to people’s privacy, especially in their own homes. But if we can build homes with enough technology in them that we can start to learn how people are using the designed spaces, the data could start to inform how we design spaces moving forward.
What advice would you have for young people entering the real estate/Architectural-Engineering-Construction industries right now?
ET: I would say go for it! But diversify your education as much as possible. If they offer a class in machine learning, take it. Many of these degrees in AEC and real estate can be gateways to doing non-traditional things.
MCS: It’s a great industry to get into now. I’d suggest going outside your core subject area and commit with your eyes open. If you’re engaged and passionate about change within this industry, you’ll have a great time.